Travel: Take a photograph, but only leave a footprint in Patagonia
When one clueless tourist set fire to a piece of toilet paper in the Torres del Paine National Park on December 27 last year, he unleashed a devastating trail of destruction through one of the most beautiful places on the planet.
Wildfire raged through the Patagonian wilderness for ten days, damaging 42,000 acres of the magnificent park and sending hundreds of thousands of animals running for their lives.
Huge swathes of 300-year-old beech tree forests were razed to the ground, leaving charred branches and black ash as far as the eye could see.
But thankfully the dramatic glaciers, jagged snow capped peaks and dazzling blue and green lakes remain. The foxes, pumas, guanacos, flamingos, nandus, condors and huemuls have returned in their droves. And the human visitors are back to help support the multi-million dollar restoration project.
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Emblematic of the park’s resurgence is the stunning Hotel Salto Chico, which after a two-month closure for smoke and ash-related repairs, is once again introducing visitors from across the world to the endless delights of Patagonia.
Run by Explora Chile at a remote location on the shores of the dazzling Lake Pehoe, it is the only lodge in the heart of the park – and is a million miles away from your usual all-inclusive experience.
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Yes, the rooms are wonderfully comfortable, with lavish beds, hot tubs, and stunning views of the lake, the Salto Chico waterfall and the Paine Massif.
The food and wine is fantastic, and it is an absolute joy to sip champagne in the lakeside Jacuzzi, or swap stories of the day’s adventures with other guests over a Pisco Sour in the uber-cosy lounge.
But it is the activities that really make this place so special. Each night before dinner, Explora’s expertly-trained bilingual guides gather to talk through all the trekking and horseback excursions available for the following day.
For experienced trekkers there is the all-day hike to the base of the towers, offering mesmerising views of the three iconic peaks that give the park its name.
The less taxing trek to the Grey Glacier starts with a wander through one of the burnt areas, which is like a scene from a Tim Burton movie, and ends with a boat trip between the Grey Lake icebergs to the edge of the glacier.
The half-day Pingo River Walk passes through an area of forest untouched by the fire, where the mission is to spot a huemul, the statuesque Southern Andean deer that features on Chile’s coat of arms. Only a few hundred remain, so to watch one calmly grazing as the famous Patagonian wind whips through the trees is a real privilege.
Even a gentle stroll along the park edge can throw up the magnificent sight of dozens of huge Andean condors soaring effortlessly over granite peaks, and opportunistic foxes devouring the remains of Guanacos slaughtered by the elusive pumas that roam the park.
Visits to working estancias and horseback rides over the rocky terrain offer a taste of the legendary gaucho culture, while the huge racks of Patagonian lamb washed down with the finest Chilean Merlot at the traditional Quincho barbecue is the perfect antidote to the elements.
Such five-star service does not come cheap, but this is one of the most isolated areas on earth and even the most basic tours in the region are notoriously expensive. To be taken to the very heart of nature in a UNESCO world biosphere reserve and quite literally experience four seasons in one day, then return to be pampered by night, is truly magical.
Most of the guides are Chilean, and the hotel staff is mainly drawn from the nearby cities of Puerto Natales and Punta Arenas, which fits in with Explora’s ethos of trying to give something back to the local community. And to help preserve the stunning natural beauty of the park, everyone lives by the motto: “The only thing you should leave is a footprint and the only thing you should take is a photo”.